Since 1991, Rodgers has run extracurricular courses for youth ages 9 to 21. Offerings begin with a general workshop and move to specialized courses in technology, language and money for kids who become serious about starting businesses.
She also mentors a few start-ups each year. Her successes include nine particularly longstanding enterprises, including a landscaping service and a bakery.
Rodgers got her inspiration from her stepfather, a painting contractor on Chicago’s rough South Side, who gradually moved his family to a better neighborhood and “up in the world.” It doesn’t matter if your life is bad right now, she says. “Things don’t have to be that way.”
She likes to tell the story of a Milwaukee postal worker ridiculed because he left a secure government job to start a service station. That former employee is now one of the city’s top auto dealers.
Lesson: Rodgers, who at first funded the center out of her own pocket, has taught hundreds of young people that you not only have to spot an opportunity, but seize it. “If you can’t get a job,” she says, “make a job.”
—Adapted from “Social Entrepreneurship Awards 2004,” the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, www.manhattan-institute.org, and the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, www.ceoofme.biz.